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Illness Forces  Golfer Jeff Julian to Retire

This week the 2002 Greater Hartford Open Golf Tournament kicks off in Connecticut. The lineup for this year's competition includes some of the greatest players in golf, including Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman, both of whom have won the Hartford Open at least once.

Mickelson and Norman will be joined this year by a player who hasn't won any titles in the Professional Golf Association's exclusive tour - and in all likelihood never will. Jeff Julian was diagnosed last year with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - the same disease that killed baseball legend Lou Gehrig in 1941, and the ailment is popularly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

Jeff Julian is a tall, thin, 40-year-old man, with blue eyes and short-cropped hair that's much more grey than it is black. His wife Kimberly is a petite woman, nine years younger, with curly brown hair and a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. The couple was married in February of last year. Four months later, they began to notice Jeff was having some problems swallowing and talking.

"We noticed some slurred speech, and once we started noticing it and mentioned to friends and family that we were going to the doctor to figure out what was going on, then we noticed that friends and family had noticed it and just hadn't really said anything and thought perhaps that he was drinking for some reason, ... even though we were talking to them at 8:00 a.m. in the morning," says Kimberly Julian.

Jeff Julian, who is a professional golfer, was diagnosed in October 2001 with Lou Gehrig's Disease, a degenerative disorder that attacks the central nervous system, slowly paralyzing the patient until he or she ultimately dies. The disease manifests itself first in either the face or the limbs. Tests reveal that Mr. Julian has extremely high levels of mercury in his body, and doctors believe this is why he developed Lou Gehrig's Disease. Mercury is used to prevent the growth of mold on football and baseball fields and golf courses.

Still, Mr. Julian has no regrets about his chosen career in golf. In fact, he considers himself lucky that his face was affected first, because it means Jeff Julian can still do what he loves - play golf on the PGA tour.

"I want to play golf on the PGA tour. I have since I was 14," Mr. Julian says. "So I want to play and feel I can still compete, and I love it."

Jeff Julian is actually no stranger to the PGA Tour. He's a professional golfer who has two PGA tour seasons to his credit. He didn't actually qualify to participate in this season's tour, but the individual sponsors of each tournament in the tour are allowed to invite players who haven't qualified, and Mr. Julian has been invited to play in seven tournaments this year. The Hartford Open is his final one. Mr. Julian says he's playing because he loves golf, but also because he wants to draw attention to his disease and the need to find a cure for it.

"The exposure that I've gotten through playing and being out there - we are in a position to help," he says.

One of the possible cures being studied by doctors involves the use of adult stem cells, a controversial therapy the U.S. Congress is considering banning. Lawmakers are concerned research on adult stem cells could lead to research on embryonic stem cells, something which many in the U.S. believe is immoral. The Julians oppose the proposed ban, and they've gotten involved in a campaign against it.

Kimberly Julian laughs when she realizes she's become a political activist. "That was one thing my mother taught me that I still live by today, is you never talk about politics or religion in public," she says. "She's totally right. She's always been right. And I do live by that, but I'm going to have to make an exception this time I think."

The Julians are philosophical about the ordeal they're going through. Doctors believe Jeff Julian probably has slightly less than two years left to live, and he and his wife refuse to waste that time pitying themselves. They both believe Jeff has Lou Gehrig's Disease for a reason, and they point to the fact that he developed it in his face first as proof. The overwhelming majority of Lou Gehrig's patients are paralyzed first in their arms and legs. But that hasn't happened to Jeff Julian yet, and because of that, he can draw the public's attention to his disease by doing what he does best - playing golf.